Volunteering is about refusing the urge to make oneself small. Tell me, are you still asking questions?

The words drown in the heatwave. It’s funny how when you’re part of the system, when you work for it, you stop asking questions. Your feed: assumptions from within, instructions from above. Strange, startling, shameful, stationary. The volunteers, the ones who care about what’s happening outside of what some want to see, who reach out to bring realities to the light of day and demand change, who question, who understand what is needed, who look for solutions themselves.

It’s funny when we sit together in the summer air behind the container. High spirits, vivacious fun. If you don’t stick with your “no’s” you won’t be able to honor the “yes’s”. Quote of a volunteer. Conversations, between Piter, Moscow, Kherson, Dnepr, Vienna 23rd district and what else etched somewhere into my memory. Switching roles (are you aware of which ones you get stuck in?), between Russian-speaking volunteer and German-speaking human. In between.

Very funny when a translator colleague shows me a scene from a popular old series. It’s funny when the paramedics make a blue-elephant-balloon with the curly tail for the 4-year-old-girl that eats too much icecream. A standard practice they learn during their training as they tell me. The elephant is a world-class gymnast, she sticks a finger into its balloon-skin trunk and makes it dip into the balloon.

It’s funny-meaning-strange and unsettling to learn how your world is not those of others helping. Understanding the connections and motivations that shape one’s experience, it’s the community in the end, communities living side by side. How a different-cultural upbringing changes everything, and a multi-cultural upbringing adds a complexity kaleidoscope on top if it. Maybe if you never really belong to a place, you really understand what it feels like to have lost a life. It’s funnily unsettling when someone tells me my Russian/German etc. is so perfect or that I learned it so well. Thank you but no thank you. It’s unsettling when the Ukrainian woman speaking English and French with her neighborhoods wants to know how the hell to make them realize that the invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the whole of Europe. “Do they not write it in your news?”. Battle of narratives that I don’t want to fight.

It’s dangerous when you give up. On seeing, on changing realities beyond the little world fenced off by someone else. Someone, in this life-quality-socalled-progressive-we’re-in-control country, not doing their job. The civil society that the state would be nothing without. Isn’t it time we had a big discussion on which narratives “we” (you know what I mean) splash it with and jeopardise its power that makes it unique? It’s dangerous to stop seeing the unfairness and not stand up with one’s allies.

Individuals – connected to the world, overcoming barriers. The general inertia that permeates everything. Heartache, exhaustion, insecurity, institutional obstacles and constraints of one’s own life plans, parallel realities around and what not. In the end, you’re putting yourself out there and you know that you won’t come out of it unchanged. It takes courage, will power (do we have enough of it?), trust in everyone regardless of their age and background. Even if it feels like you lose yourself in helping, volunteering is all about your core as a human. Though the signal might take time to travel.

Volunteering is a constant exercise in refusing the urge to make oneself small – and to get stuck protecting one’s little world. And do the things that need to be done, in a watchful balance between taking responsibility and letting go. Just to come back to it – to whatever you’re doing to not ignore a war, soon.


I’ve given up on forcing texts to flow when everything’s just stuck or meandering through space, cushioned by sweltering summer days brought to you by human-induced climate change. So “enjoy” the mind-racing fragments. 19.6. – Vienna

Into worlds beyond the capital, talks between youth at night and the signs of giving too much

We talk about social entrepreneurship in the hot morning sun at the arrival centre. Us – no more volunteers, but humans with ideas, jobs and lives. I remember that we’re empathetic, we relate, when we act from our whole being. Caring, then setting boundaries. But this day also brings me down to the bottom of reality. In German we say “aus den Augen aus dem Sinn”. Out of sight, out of mind. We’re not responsible, we don’t know, this is not our job, we follow the rules, there’s no more that we can do, this can’t be, there must be a solution in place. But I’ve already pluged into worlds beyond the capital.

O. arrived to the centre from the northern tip of the country, before she approaches me while I’m jogging between the tables in the waiting area. There are another woman and a child with her. After landing in a distribution centre they were sent to live in a hotel – they call it a курятник, a hen house. The other woman is ready to go back, how can you live in such conditions, back to Kharkiv. I just listen to their request, ready to jump to the next task, but this hurts. From their story – the hotel houses 50 people, it’s old and dirty, and I wonder if it was closed cause of the pandemic or other reasons. 2 floors, people sleeping on the first floor which isn’t made for that, one toilet (besides some in the rooms, that don’t fit all?), two cooktops, two fridges and a kitchen sink for all. Imagine the queues, she says. A billard table. Food stored on random cupboards. Contorted, slippery, endless corridors in the dark. Elderly people left to their fate in this environment. No pharmacy in the village, kids shouting into the night, and the stories of having to hop on a bus to the neighboring village to get bread (if you cannot pay 3,5€ for a loaf, who can). I watch videos with rats and filth, and here I stop the story that at the start I find too hard to comprehend myself. A few discussions and a phonecall later there is a next step, but how can writing to some mail address with videos and photos attached feel like enough? The lack of knowledge, procedures, horizontal coordination, of transparency and faces to approach. Maybe the worst thing isn’t that this is happening, and that this wasn’t the only case, but that I-We don’t know about it, and the most vulnerable people we don’t see. As if this world didn’t exist, as if we had all the grounds to trust in the system beyond this microcosm that has been working since March 4th. But why would we. There are things that one can understand but not accept, this is one of them.

Scene cut.

After this, the other stories blend into the background, mums and kids, the deaf family, the deaf woman. Kharkiv, Mariupol. Shampoo, excel sheet, info sights forwarded, familar face, talks to understand why we don’t know, and lunch in the volunteer container. A constant exercise in staying firm, confident about your responsibility, and at the same time human and fair. I believe in justice – not equality, it’s hard to live it. And there’s summer outside.

Scene cut.

Conversations. I think that we’ve all had our own savior to helper story as volunteers. The frantic beginnings, going the extra step of the way with the people we were helping, feelings of sympathy and guilt and not doing enough, bonding beyond the professional, handing over personal mobile numbers to many more people than now, thoughts revolving around some situations or people we can’t forget for days. Then a certain alienation, and a return – slower, maybe stricter, with an own solidified understanding of one’s role as a helper. And a life to still uphold. “Ah my child? There’s also this yes”. It’s a marathon. What I’ve learned: to be fully present. And that we’re a team, an organisation, a little wonder (thanks to the people who set this up).

Scene cut.

The night at the train station a few days earlier. It’s a calm one, few people are arriving, I’m the only translator, things happen. The colleagues from the other organisation are sitting on two stools, one of them says what’s up with Ukraine, it has calmed down, one doesn’t hear “anything” anymore after all. Well..We talk. I’m always amazed by the rift in realities. Before, there’s the family that needs to go back to Ukraine cause of a medical emergency. The moments when you think why, how much pain can you bear? The tickets are very expensive, the free ones sold out. Then the drunk guy is annoying but it’s all part of the game, the volunteer pouring him a coffee laughs out hard when I translate. Mediation.

Late night talk with R. from Kiev, in his 20s, once the basic questions are clarified, the camp bed for the night is occupied and the station is unwelcomingly empty. Crafting French ceilings and drumming in a Christian community. From Kiev to Ternopil, Georgia, Vienna, now Germany – “to friends”. What would we do without them, the people who co-create our geography and give us something to hold on to in the unknown. The humans who gift us a bit of “home” away from home. There’s so much more, and I don’t have words left. We’re just doing what we can, we walk through the sleeping city to the night bus towards home, go back to work, jump between different realities, big respect for everyone.

Signs, rules, boundaries & motivation – What the supervision taught us

Friday afternoon on Zoom. Here some super quick takeaways.

  • If something irritates you, then that’s to be taken seriously. You have to feel good about your work. A negative emotion is a sign that we have been giving too much.
  • There’s always an organisational and a personal side to things 😉 and to purpose. Remember the organisational question of what can we offer the people arriving, we have a specific function, we have a main task – everything else comes second and can be delegated (if there’s someone to delegate to), we’re not equally responsible for everything. Know exactly who you are and why you’re here – personally. Know your motivation.
  • Automatization of processes is important to reduce conflicts, an obviously increase clarity, in an organisation.
  • In all the helping, and doing things, and good emotions it’s always helpful to reflect why a person / situation made us feel in a certain way. And sometimes just be aware of when a bond is created or there’s manipulation happening. In the end, the endeavour is still about helping as many people as possible. Oh, the psychology!

As a writer you have huge responsibility, and I feel it with every word that I’m putting here. I hope that I respected it with the way I wrote this text. Volunteering can often produce an emotional cocktail of love, cooperation, irritation, indignation, duty, standing your ground. And there are no obvious answers.

Sun and Scouts. And no one should have to be ashamed to ask for diapers.

STORIES | “How can you live without a cat?” I laugh that I don’t know how, and promise to send photos of my cats in exchange. I etch their smiles into my memory disk, and drink the – now lukewarm – cappuccino that they brought from the kitchen despite my protests. Gratitude, on both sides. And swinging bit by bit through the unknowns of Austrian institutions. The microcosm is bubbling with life; helpless exhaustion doesn’t have a chance here.

Arrival centre an summer outside. In the hall, scouts are building games for kids (and this includes lots of wood and painting with your feet while sitting on a swing), kitchen people keep up a steady supply of fuel, translators are registering people for emergency housing and regional distribution, or exchanging infos in conversations that just flow. Ukrainians are resting or problem-solving.

Human stories.

O. has two little kids, 2-year old twins. They had to flee their house close to Boryspil Airport in Kiev, shells, air raid sirens, and the little ones who were tugging their mother down into their basement in the middle of the night (understandable). If the twins were tricky troublemakers before, now O. and her sleep have it even harder. “They wake up 3-4 times per night”, she tells me standing between the kitchen and waiting area. “The docter said this is normal, it’s because of the war, they have to get over it”. Like everyone else she expects more, more guidance than that. It’s the conversations in between mindful, quiet questions about basic needs and rummaging around the shelves to find the right size of diapers. A coordinator hands me two more products on top, cause you can always need that for a baby, and this is how she did it with her own kid. Smiles. Hand on heart. O.’s pale-pink T-shirt with a quote on ‘kindness’. While I write this, part of me feels feels ashamed and I remember the words of the psychotherapist: the shame you feel doesn’t just come come from yourself. No one should have to be ashamed to ask for diapers. No one.

V. lost his bag with all his documents. He lived all over the place. We agree that we both love St. Petersburg, the war cannot change our attitude to a city.
I. & L. are struggling to get into a German class. One of them has a cat (which had to stay in Germany), the other brings cappuccino. Phonecalls, I want to understand. Plans of action, and numbers exchanged.
The Ukrainian-Russian volunteer grown up closeby, the invisible bonds that bring life trajectories a bit closer together. The guy from Chechnya – “I come from a war, I know how it is.” “If you can help, then you want to help.” Even though it might not be our job anymore.

The young women in a light-blue cap who just arrived and wants to volunteer. In the end, I observe her play with the kids, and I remember the importance of asking. Of going out there. Of doing what you love. And not wasting a second to do that. And I remember the big respect I have to everyone here.
The children’s drawings. I fix my eyes on them every time I walk by.
The sunny frenzy.

In the right place. At the right time.
#Слава Україні!

They still have time. And in that space a story emerges on the train platform.

M. takes out his phone: his grandfather young, his grandfather old with M.’s mother, with a joyous smile and a funny cap, family pictures in slightly faded black and white, black hair, expressive eye(brow)s, long robes. His grandfather was 16 when he escaped home to join the “Rostov” battalion in WWII, fighting Nazi Germany. Two huge suitcases, more bags, a 9-month-old baby and two adults on the sunny-hot train platform, almost summer. Time stands still for a moment.

Before, I meet M., his wife L. and the little A. at the info point. Their questions are simple, their bags heavy. I show them up to the platform, dragging a maxi-suitcase behind me. They still have time, and in that space a question that I don’t recall invites M. to tell a bit of his story. M. is from Azerbaijan, his wife is Ukrainian-Azerbaijani, and they haven’t had it easy. After 20 years in Mariupol (him, if I remember correctly), they had to leave in 2014, away from the war, and since then had been building some normality in Kharkiv. And then…

Their escape from the big war led them first to Azerbaijan, bringing the little boy back to the house where M. was born. But they weren’t welcome there – there is the whole Europe for you, they were told. No place for you here, besides a 90-day tourist visa. Now they are going to Northern Germany. He shakes his head, at everything happening, this can’t be possible. Solid and light. I imagine his grandfather, who walked 4 years to Berlin (I can’t confirm that information) turn around in his grave. Back in the present, they want to know about life in Vienna, and standing there I think that it’s not that bad here. After all, I love this city and feel it deep. The air is filled with pride, grief, incredulity and new beginnings. Contagious smiles, curiosity and baby energy. We exchange numbers to keep spaces open, I leave though I don’t want to.

Scene cut.

They were on vacation in Sri Lanka, when they returned it was 24 February and war. (Whether it was really the 24th or another day on this eternal 24 February doesn’t really matter.) Then, their bag with all the childrens’ toys gets stolen in the train to Vienna. We joke about the power of the bible that lay inside. Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany – geographies condense in split seconds. Volunteering here is problem-solving and logical thinking on steroids, clearing out debris of assumption and everything one as no idea about. I’m happy that someone’s waiting for them, in the German city of one of my best friends.

Scene cut.

She lies under the drip stand, the container is white, an almost-summer breeze. Unexpected medical emergency. Kiev. Pain. I feel at ease with the young doctor while I translate and enjoy being in this parallel reality. Later we walk to the pharmacy, O. with her child, a friend staying in Poland with hers. The friend: for two months we sunk into a depression, now we want to distract ourselves. Travel, be in a different place. The shopping street is full of people. You have to survive after all.

Scene cut.

This baby is 7 months old, lying in the arms of his mother. I won’t forget H.’s words, the child wasn’t even 5 months old when it entered the basement. I don’t inquire further, one word is enough: Mariupol. When H.’s phone can’t be found there’s a moment of panic, but all good. The only object you take with you, when you leave with nothing. The family of 5 – mother, daughter and 3 kids – has a lot of luggage, with things gifted in Zaporizhzhia and beyond, the tiny baby at the focus of everyone’s attention. I remind myself of our job as volunteers: do all we can to help with the most basic needs: a stroller for the baby, coupons for the hotel, food and our presence. Our reassurance. What follows, are moments of metro (“is that our train approaching? omg the wind is so strong”), city-centre streets, fancy reception, hotel corridors, metro again, food at at the train station (Tageszentrum). A homeless person is asking for help in the metro, the mother: we also consider ourselves homeless. In the silences I chew on questions that I could ask. I don’t find many, while my brain probably joins the family in processing the reason why we crossed paths in life. The kids are distant. I want to reach them, and I don’t even try hard enough. Then I learn that Ukraine has lowered the military conscription age to 16.

I’m dumstruck by a banality. Of how most of us look “normal”, maybe exhausted, while storms rage inside. We’re all just humans, but with whole world to uncover. These hours, translating and volunteering at the train station have been a school of life in making the invisible visible, subtly, while helping. Of being present, giving everything you have, receiving the gift of gratitude (albeit in a reality that shouldn’t be here), looking back in the eyes. Of laughing despite everything, setting boundaries, sharing bits of lives. Of walking away and letting go.

At home I remember M., I head over to Wikipedia to check up on the battalion:

The 339th Rifle Division was first formed in late August, 1941, as a standard Red Army rifle division, at Rostov-on-Don. As it was formed in part from reservists and cadre that included members of the Communist Party from that city, it carried the honorific title “Rostov” for the duration. In late November it was part of the force that counterattacked the German 1st Panzer Army in the Battle of Rostov and forced its retreat from the city, one of the first major setbacks for the invaders. During 1942 the division was forced to retreat into the Caucasus, where it fought to defend the passes leading to the Black Sea ports. In 1943 it fought to liberate the Taman Peninsula, and then in early 1944 to also liberate Crimea. In the following months the division was reassigned to the 1st Belorussian Front, with which it took part in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

Decades and centuries of past are condensed into the already tiny space left since 24 February. It is hard to bear, but while I walk down the escalator, back to others and the anthill of a station, I swear to myself that I want to dive deep into history. In the end, it is my history too.

Today I met B. – B. is for Bálint. We’re not strangers anymore in the chilly afternoon-night.

APRIL | I just want to catch a metro and seal up my mind for the day. Instead, I decide to trust. And to not be afraid of a question. B. is the nicest human who would deserve so much more from life. We stand close in the piercing cold, in between the unforgiving wind, glass walls, evening city void. “I want to go somewhere warm. Italy.” Time has stopped, and we’re not strangers anymore.

B. studied English Communication and International Relations in Budapest, speaks four languages, is smart and courageous. He has a dream and a guitar, and is always looking for solutions. But there’s a “problem”: he’s Roma. As he jokes himself, he’s also homeless, obviously dark skinned, diabetic with insuline issues, fat. “Very loud” is how he describes his snoring. He would so love to get rid of just one of these things.

B. went to the border between Ukraine and Hungary to translate for Roma refugees fleeing the war. After years of living between Budapest and Vienna, in shelters and on the streets, he left Budapest cause he didn’t feel safe there. Now he’s leaving Vienna too. The main train station where he just came from towers a block behind him, he shivers when he tells me the story. Of how he almost ran into the man who not long ago in the shelter called him  “faggot” and “gipsy”, launching into a pepper stray attack when B. went up to him to show that he wasn’t afraid of him and his insults. “You need to speak up”, B. says. And I silently agree in awe. The man is permanently drunk, aggressive, racist, and there’s more. In the end, we come to the conclusion that social workers are probably too afraid of him – or they’re professionally unprepared or don’t care – to ban him from the shelter forever.

“I’m too normal”, B. says. “So the other one comes first. But how do they think I’ll make it on my own? Why do they need to wait before something bad happens, do they want to see blood or what, before they act?” B. had to leave. The memories flood back.

B. had his own room in this shelter in the Viennese pampa, he was building  terrariums with beautiful plants for a company. A flow of gesticulations shows me the company in an office building across the square and I squint into the semi-darkness, intrigued. “It was such a beautiful room.” But he can’t go back there. Italy, then Spain, yes, a lot of maybe’s. At the train station, a Ukrainian child had the saddest eyes he’d ever seen. It brings back my own memories and it hurts, it hurts, the train station is meters away. We talk about Ukraine. He cares. When you meet a person who cares, you just feel it.

B. tells me of his dream, a bike camper. Independence. Protection from rain, snow, cold. Simple things. He tells about tents. Tents are good, sometimes they’re set fire to (crazy world). And did you know that in the USA they started giving tiny houses to homeless people? One of the last nights he slept outside, a dad and daughter woke him up. They brought food. “I was so ashamed. Usually I hide well during the night, but I was so tired.” B. owns a summer-sleeping bag. I  swallow, and with that i swallow the only words that I could have said. Time expands. It feels like we’ve been here for hours. There’s more, much more, but stories are just limited containers of reality. And stories are forgotten, but the big smiles of people are not.

He tells me I’m the only one who stopped to talk today. Who made him feel like he’s worth it. But I just borrowed time, isn’t that what we always do when we care. And I’m close to crying, that’s reality. Between talking personal stories, and class inequalities, money, racism. Imagine yourself simply unable to afford a roof above your head. In between pointed fingers, I meet a Viennese geography invisible to me. At some point, I contribute to his bus ticket. In the end, we go separate ways. I don’t know what will happen to B. I wish him the life that he deserves, and I wish you to care. And to just remember, how many B.s might be out there. How many.

B. stands for Bálint. You deserved a name, though I usually just do initials to protect identities.

I walk away, into the privilege of warmth and at least towards the constructed illusion of home, with many questions, a certain anger and fresh awareness of social injustices and challenges – that I can’t solve, but I hope someone else will. First, we need to see. We need to dare to have those conversations that we’re afraid of.

Cause they might change us.
Cause we care.
That’s what makes us human, doesn’t it?